Manchester street

A Tale of Two Cities

Nicola Biggerstaff

During the festive period I took a trip to Manchester with a friend. Now that we’re hearing all the ways the city has been thriving in recent years, from the success of its ever-expanding public transport infrastructure, the Bee Network, to its vibrant culture and welcoming atmosphere, safe to say I was blown away by our time there. But is it all a bit too good to be true?

The first thing we noticed on arriving was the extent of the ongoing regenerative works across the city centre. From the Town Hall to housing developments and a new district heating system among others, everything surrounded by construction cordons, cranes and scaffolding seemed to give the impression of a thriving city.

I was also taken by surprise at the convenience and affordability of its public transport. Tram tracks ran down almost every street we walked through in the city centre, and we never went more than a few minutes without seeing one of them or one of their recently introduced ‘Bee Buses’ whizz past. The launch of the publicly-owned network late last year has been hailed as just the start of a nationwide movement to bring transport services into local public ownership. This means that, with fares around the city now cost no more than £2 for a single journey, and the tram as little as £1.40 for a single journey, their not-for-profit model brings more employment and leisure opportunities to residents.

However, the most striking detail didn’t become apparent until our journey home. While we were there, we one day paid £6.10 for an all-day tram pass to travel to one of our planned activities. This could take us from as far west as the airport to as far east as Rochdale. From the Trafford Centre to Bury and from Altrincham to Ashton-Under-Lyme,as many times as we wished that day, with plenty of space and seats allowing us to travel in comfort.

When the final leg of our journey home involved taking a private bus from Glasgow back home, we were left longing for the efficient service we’d become accustomed to just the previous day. For a service already crowded by the rush hour, further compounded by the previous bus being cancelled outright, and the route’s usual double decker replaced with a single, we were also charged… £6.10.

As you can imagine, I was left with a magnificent impression of the city following this. I came away thinking this is a city that must be getting everything right. If its transportation is this effective, if everything is this smooth, effective and progressive on the surface, then surely this would be testament to effective, ethical governance and procurement?

Well, as I unfortunately seem to be learning time and time again, if something that exists in the UK today looks and feels too good to be true, it most definitely is. It did not take a lot of digging to discover the dubious investments and morally questionable schemes which brought the city to the forefront. As it turns out, just because somewhere else is doing things better than Glasgow, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doing it well. Our government has just set the bar that low.

Manchester still encounters the same problems of any modern urban area embracing modernity: gentrification in the face of increasing levels of poverty among residents, exacerbated by increasing levels of both homelessness and anti-homeless architecture, all of which combined creates a sanitised, tourism friendly façade that ignores the needs of locals for the sake of private profit. Sky high residential buildings may be nice to look at, but they provide little for the communities that surround them, the ones in need of good quality housing now built several dozen storeys and hundreds of thousands of pounds out of reach.

Unfortunately, the idea of progress is subjective. What progress looks like to the policy co-ordinator of a left-wing Scottish think tank, won’t be the same as that of a rich property developer or a millionaire footballer.

But are there much more sinister motivations at play here?

The scrapping of the Manchester to Birmingham leg of HS2, as well as disputes over levelling up funding has once again highlighted the contentious north-south divide. Advertising the leg as opening up employment opportunities in London to residents of Manchester and Birmingham was spun as a positive side effect of levelling up. Now that it’s been scrapped, where does that leave these residents who had been primed to contribute to the London hyper-bubble? Who were attracted to a more affordable version of this commuter-cosmopolitan lifestyle and have now been left with fewer opportunities and a hefty housing price tag?

We’re always looking for examples to follow in how we can improve conditions on our own turf. And we must be cautious of putting seemingly progressive cities on a pedestal. Manchester might be getting a lot of things right at the moment, but just like everywhere else at the moment, there are still areas which leave a lot to be desired.

All that being said, the Bee Network itself is a leading example of civic infrastructure done right, when planned and ran entirely in the public interest, and not for private profit. This is an initiative which we can look to for ideas and inspiration.

Common Weal are proud to support Get Glasgow Moving’s Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign as SPT reach the crucial stakeholder engagement and planning stages of the Strathclyde Regional Bus Partnership. If you haven’t already, please sign their petition and spread the word.

1 thought on “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. I drove to Manchester last year and decided to drive into the middle of the city and find somewhere to park. That was a mistake! I assumed that after 7pm I’d be able to park for free but if I got unlucky I might have to pay a small fee. Instead it was a nightmare round of driving in circles with no parking available.

    Now I appreciate that’s a good thing and now I know I can plan around not being able to park centrally.

    It’s a huge shift over my lifetime. When I was 17 in 1981 I could drive to Regent Street in London and park for free at the bottom.

    So as cities change it’s worth remembering how radically different a car-deprioritised city is to the baseline older people expect. The reactions against ULEZ in London are in part a reaction against this change and against a perceived loss of freedom for car drivers.

    Here in Dumfries I’ve been involved in developing active travel and one of the key issues for us is around these sensitivities. Rural Scotland is very car-centric and we’ve been trying to develop infrastructure that offers options rather than changes how people travel. So instead of people feeling they have to use a car, we want people to feel that bus or cycling is a reasonable choice instead of taking a car.

    In cities there’s less space to do that so I appreciate that making a city bus-friendly may mean taking land off car use (eg lanes, parking space).

    The climate crisis gives us no choice but to encourage a more social collective transport system but it’s worth remembering that for us older people these changes are already a massive transformation on the baseline we grew up with.

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